The land is largely devoid of humans, except for occasional hikers or hunters who share the undulating desert valleys and five mountain ranges with jackrabbits, tortoises, coyotes and small bands of bighorn sheep.
"I call it the big openness," said acting park chief Whalon. "I don't want to lose any ground."
What concerns him most is how the legislation could affect adjacent public land just across the increasingly busy Interstate 15 from the northern boundary of the preserve.
Administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, that land has less protection than the preserve, Whalon said. He fears if it is sold to private owners as a result of the new bill, it could be very profitable to put commercial strips next to the highway, exposing the preserve to light, noise and pollution.
Three hours away in Death Valley, tourists interviewed last week were mostly aghast at the possibility of new mining and development in the park.
"It would be crummy," said Laury Huckling, 35, of Ontario, Canada, marveling at the 35-million-year-old lava beds off Zabriskie Point. "This should be protected forever."
But Don Twiggs, a visitor from Ludlow, Vt., disagreed. "For 360 degrees I see nothing but a lot of rock," said Twiggs, a retired plumbing contractor. "I'm sure you could get some use out of some of it, and still have plenty left over."
Supporters of the bill say buying lands simply for development would remain illegal, and that years of costly mining work would have to be done before the land could be privatized.
"This is not a return to the Old West land rush," said Gerald Hillier, former head of the BLM's California desert office, now a consultant to county officials in four Southwestern states. "People are not going to be able to go out and stake a claim, kick the cattle off, and say 'this is mine.' "
He said market forces would also keep most national forest and BLM land from being developed, because there is still so much available private land closer to towns.
Last week in Sierra County, on snowy ground outside his DigMore Mine, David O'Donnell put on his hardhat and adjusted his headlamp with fingers gnarled from old injuries. A county road worker, he mines his claims evenings and weekends. "If I was not married," said the father of two grown sons, "I would be up here 24-7."
On one level, the legislation appeals to O'Donnell, who mines with a heavy hammer, dynamite and an ore cart inherited from his father. He figures he could acquire his 160-acre claim and cut some timber for shoring up his mine. And he could sell off an interest to raise capital for equipment and helpers.
But he is concerned about development. "I think mining property was not designed for a housing tract," he said. "If people move in, they will think the miners are making too much noise. They would complain about drills and rock crushers ... and too much dust."
Mike Miller, who owns the Original Sixteen to One Mine in the nearby hamlet of Allegheny -- one of the county's few commercial mining operations -- said the new law would make it too easy to purchase mining claims, after as little as $7,500 in mineral development work.
"That is not right," he said.
Unlike some other foothill counties that lost mining and logging jobs, Sierra County is hardly teeming with new development. Three-quarters of the county is public land, and most of the rest has been developed or is too steep and rugged.
Officials said the proposed law could open up vast forests in the county to housing and other private uses, increasing the tax base. They said they welcome development near existing towns but are concerned that development deep in national forests could harm recreational tourism and create new costs for snow removal, ambulance services and police and fire protection.
Adam Harper, manager of the California Mining Assn., said those fears are unwarranted. "The locals have the ultimate say on what can go on a piece of property."
On a recent afternoon, Sierra County Sheriff Lee Adams III stood on a snowy outcropping, looking out over some of the mining claims that extend 40 miles along a stretch of the Yuba River favored by fishermen and whitewater enthusiasts.
"These are some of the most scenic areas of Tahoe National Forest," said Adams, speaking as a longtime county resident. "Say I pay $10,000 for a claim and turn around and sell it to a developer for $200,000. I do not think that is a benefit to the public."